Early Religious Writings, 1903-1909
By Pavel Florensky
Translated by Boris Jakim
Eerdmans. Pp. xiii + 228. $35
Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) was a Russian polymath whose significance for Christian thought in the 20th century continues to become more apparent as his writings are translated into other world languages. A mathematician, physicist, poet, linguist, electrical engineer, art historian, semiotician, and philosopher, Florensky was ordained to the priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1911 in a country on the brink of war and revolution.
A key figure for the early 20th-century Russian religious intellectual renaissance, Florensky fell afoul of the Soviet régime despite having been a leader, clad in his cassock, in Bolshevik drives for rural electrification and in efforts to provide nutrition for gulag inmates from seaweed harvested on the White Sea. In 1937, he was executed in a prison camp in what the Orthodox Church today considers a martyrdom, and his burial place is unknown.
This book of eight brief essays is from the years just before Florensky’s ordination to the priesthood, when he wrote as a public intellectual in periodical literature centered on the Moscow Theological Academy. One of his primary themes is the reconciliation of apparent contradictions between science and religion, and an essay on “Superstition and Miracle” is a fascinating contribution to this field of Christian inquiry.
The two most compelling essays are biographical explorations of two of Florensky’s contemporary spiritual exemplars: Archimandrite Serapion (V.M. Mashkin, 1854-1905), another theoretical mathematician who lived on Mount Athos before teaching at the Theological Academy, and an extended, moving hagiographical essay, “The Salt of the Earth,” on Abba Isidore (1814-1908) of Gethsemane Hermitage at Sarov. Florensky was Isidore’s spiritual son, and the firsthand account of his life (which has appeared previously in a separate English translation) is an indication of the vibrancy of Russian religious eldership (starchestvo) at the beginning of the last century.
Boris Jakim is the world’s foremost translator of Russian religious literature into English, and this collection of material by Florensky joins his extensive earlier work on Dostoevsky, Solovyov, Bulgakov, and Khomiakov. This is a valuable contribution to the diversity of pre-Revolutionary thought, and a good way for beginning readers of Florensky to explore his thought before tackling longer works such as the monumental Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters (1914).
Richard J. Mammana
New Haven, Connecticut